Sunday, October 15, 2006


The origin is unknow but one theory holds that General James Wolfe (the battle hero of Quebec) used the word in a letter as a pejorative term for Americans. Another theory is that it comes from the Dutch 'janke' which is a diminutive of the name Jan.

This is from a website visitor:
I've read that he North American natives allied with the French during French & Indian Wars incorrectly pronounced the French word 'Anglais' as 'Yankeez'. Thus, the word 'Yankee' is a corruption of the French word for English."

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Sabotage: "
First used in the early 1900's to describe French railway workers that were on strike and used to cut the sabot that held railroad tracks in place.

I was always taught at school (in England) that this was named after the clogs, or sabots, that the French rural peasants used to wear. Unhappy at the loss of their jobs during the mechanisation of agriculture in the 19th century, they would throw their sabots in the thresing machines causing them to fail. This method of damaging equipment came to be known as sabotage."

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Make no bones about it

Make no bones about
The bones referred to (originally made from bone) are dice. And mean to state a fact in a way that allows no doubt.

When you 'make no bones about' it you are stating all the facts and leaving no doubt. It is believed that this idiom comes from dice which were originally made of bone."

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Hold your horses

Hold your horses
A U.S. origin which dates back to the 19th century which means to be patient and to wait.

This pre dates even your brief history as well as most of Europe... even the Romans used to have a man to 'Hold your Horses' whilst a noisy battle was ensuing! It’s probably Chinese in origin as they invented gunpowder."

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006


This is the area where relief pitchers throw their warmup pitches before entering the game. Nobody knows the exact origin, but one theory is that there used to be ads for 'Bull' Durham Tobacco on the outfield walls next to where the pitchers would warmup.

A second theory comes from the fact that when fans arrived late, they were herded like bulls into a roped off section which came to be known as the bullpen. This was the same area where pitchers warmed up.

A third theory is that pitchers who were taken out of the game had been 'slaughtered' like a bull; and the new pitcher would suffer the same fate.

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Back to Square One

Back to square one
Meaning back to the beginning this idiom was first heard on football radio commentaries during games.Football isn't easy to commentate on on the radio so they had the idea of splitting up the field into notional numbered squares so that listeners could be told where the ball was. Whenever the game restarted after a break it was 'back to square one'."

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The word 'blackmail' became popular in the 1800's and comes from the clan chieftains who ran protection rackets on farmers in Scottland. If the farmers didn't pay the mail (an old term for rent), the chieftains would steal their cattle and crops. Since this was considered evil, it was considered 'black'.
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Monday, October 02, 2006

Barking up the wrong tree

Meaning: Following a dead end path, pursuing an incorrect lead or assumption.
Example: If you think those gloves will convict OJ, you are barking up the wrong tree.
Origin: When using dogs in a foxhunt, the dogs sometimes corner the fox in a tree. The dogs will proceed to bark up at the fox. Barking up the wrong tree, where there is no fox, is a pointless exercise.

Straight from the horse's mouth

Meaning: Directly from the source.
Example: If you want the real story you have to get it straight from the horses mouth.
Origin: This is a boast of confidence from a racetrack tipster, who says he gets his information from the horses themselves—thereby assuring the bettor that the info is the correct.

Thanks to Jim Hubbell


A horse trader would bend the ear of a prospective buyer with all kinds of talk about the animal, but for a clear measure of its worth, one can simply look in the animal's mouth. You can tell a great deal about a horse from its mouth. Age, nutrition, general health of the horse, and if it had been over reined.

If a horse is unruly you have to rein it in a lot, and this shows in the horse's mouth.

Pass the buck

Meaning: Pass off responsibility to someone else.
Example: In times of trouble, my old boss was quick to pass the buck. But when things went well, her mantra became "the buck stops here".
Origin: Some card games use a marker called a buck. Players take turns acting as dealer with the buck marking the current dealer. When the buck is passed to the next player, the responsibility for dealing is passed.

Spawned the phrase "The buck stops here" popularized by President Harry Truman.

A buck-slip is also a small piece of paper that is sometimes preprinted, or hand-written, and included the names of the people who were to receive a memo or report. It is a routing list.

In the days before copy machines and computers people typed one memo, with a carbon copy, then passed the one copy of the memo around to the people listed on the buck slip. Each person initialed next to their name on the buck slip and passed the memo on to the next person on the buck slip.

A tactic used to delay or delegate something was to pass the document on to the next person, without initialing the buck slip -- pass the buck (slip). When Harry said the buck stopped here he meant he wasn't going to pass the responsibility along.

Although the buck slip was a popular use of the term, that usage may have originated with the gambling usage.

Pushing the envelope

Meaning: To approach or exceed known performance boundaries.
Example: Your performance at work is not exactly pushing the envelope.
Origin: This expression comes out of the US Air Force test pilot program of the late 1940's.

The envelope refers to a plane's performance capabilities. The limits of the planes ability to fly at speeds and altitudes and under certain stresses define what is known as its performance envelope. It's an "envelope" in the sense that it contains the ranges of the plane's abilities.

"Pushing the envelope" originally meant flying an aircraft at, or even beyond, its known or recommended limits.

Thanks to Kensmark

A safe bet is that many who pushed the envelope crashed.

The expression was popularized by Tom Wolfe in his book "The right stuff" (1979) and later the movie of the same name.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Kick the bucket

Kick the Bucket

This evocative phrase meaning to die is of uncertain etymology. The most likely explanation is that it does not refer to a washing tub or pail, the sense of bucket that most of us are familiar with. Instead, it comes from another sense of bucket meaning a yoke or beam from which something can be hung. The imagery evoked by the phrase is that of an animal being hung up for slaughter, kicking the beam from which it is suspended in its death throes.

This sense of bucket probably comes from the Old French buquet, meaning a tr├ębuchet or balance. The more familiar sense of pail is likely from the Old French buket, meaning a tub or pail.

Shakespeare describes this imagery of a slaughtered animal's death throes in Henry IV, Part 2 (III.ii.283):

Swifter then hee that gibbets on the Brewers Bucket.

The earliest known use of the phrase to kick the bucket is from Grose's 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, where it is glossed as:

To kick the bucket. to die. He kicked the bucket one day; he died one day.

It is often suggested that the term refers to a hanging, where the hanged stands on a pail which is then kicked out from under him. There is no evidence to support this and it probably got its start as speculation attempting to make sense of the phrase long after the sense of bucket meaning beam was forgotten.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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BimboSayings, Words, Word Origins, Idioms, proverbs

Bated Breath

Several people have emailed me asking where bated breath comes from. Bate is a verb dating to the beginning of the14th century meaning to deprive or to lessen; it is a clipped form of abate.

Shakespeare was the first writer we know of to use bated breath, in 1596 in The Merchant of Venice, I.iii.125:

With bated breath, and whispring humblenesse.

Like most of Shakespeare's alleged coinages, this is probably not an invention of the Bard's; his use has simply survived while the writings of earlier and lesser writers have perished.

The term is commonly misspelled as baited breath.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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Balls to the wall

Balls To The Wall

The phrase balls to the wall, meaning an all-out effort, comes from the world of aviation. On an airplane, the handles controlling the throttle and the fuel mixture are often topped with ball-shaped grips, referred to by pilots as (what else?) "balls." Pushing the balls forward, close to the front wall of the cockpit increases the amount of fuel going to the engines and results in the highest possible speed.

The earliest written citation is from 1966-67, appearing in Harvey's Air War:

You know what happened on that first Doomsday Mission (as the boys call a big balls-to-the-wall raid) against Hanoi oil.

Several Korean War-era veterans have written me noting their use of the term during their service. The phrase may very well date to this earlier war, although we have no written evidence for it.

There are two common misconceptions about the phrase. The first is that it is a reference to a part of the male anatomy.

The second is that it arose in railroad work. A speed governor on train engines would have round, metal weights at the end of arms. As the speed increased, the spinning balls would rise--being perpendicular to the walls at maximum speed. But there is no evidence to support this story. No use of the phrase is known to exist prior to the mid-1960s, and all the early cites are from military aviation.

(Source: Historical Dictionary of American Slang)

Saturday, September 02, 2006


From The Mavens' word of the day:

Scum itself has been used for many hundreds of years to refer to offensive, disgusting, or disreputable people, and thus many people take scumbag as an intensification of this scum with the suffix -bag, a frequent element in abusive slang terms (dirtbag; hosebag; sleazebag; etc.), all of which are, however, later than scumbag.

Though most people seem not to realize it now, the original sense of scumbag was 'a condom', based on the slightly earlier, and both rather obvious, scum 'semen' and bag 'a condom'.

People's reaction to scumbag today tend to reflect their awareness of the 'condom' sense, with those who are aware of it finding scumbag significanly more offensive than those who are not. While certainly offensive, scumbag is not in the top tier of the most offensive terms in English. It is more offensive than jerk or creep, but less offensive than, say, asshole. But to publicly call an elected official a scumbag still seems a fairly extreme step, even given the current state of political discourse in America. Note that the New York Times, often squeamish about such matters, did not print the word and used a euphemism instead.

Though most sources claim that both senses, 'condom' and 'disreputable person', date from the late 1960s, the first sense is found in underground literature at least by the 1930s, and the second by 1950.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Son of a gun

A derogitory term, sometimes used as a suggestion of toughness. Rogue or scamp.


After sailors had crossed the Atlantic to the West Indies, they would take the native women on board the ship and have their way with them in between the cannons. Some of the women the sailors left behind would have boys, who were called sons between the guns.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Say What?
The plea or mode of defense under which a person on trial for a crime proves or attempts to prove that he was in another place when the alleged act was committed; as, to set up an alibi; to prove an alibi.

Latin, meaning elsewhere

Sunday, August 20, 2006


Say What?
From Wikipedia

The Mafia, also referred to in Italian as Cosa Nostra ("Our Thing" or "This Thing of Ours"), is a secret society formed in the mid-19th century in Sicily. An offshoot emerged on the East Coast of the United States during the late 19th century following waves of Italian immigration to that country.

The Mafia's power in the United States peaked in the mid-20th century, until a series of FBI investigations in the 1970s and 1980s reduced the Mafia's influence. Despite its decline the Mafia continues to be the most dominant criminal organization operating in the U.S. and uses this status to maintain control over much of both Chicago's and New York City's organized criminal activity. The Mafia and its reputation have become entrenched in American popular culture, portrayed in movies, TV shows, and even commercial advertising.

Actual Meaning in Itallian
Beauty, Excellence, Bravery

Saturday, August 19, 2006


Say What?

Slang for Penis or a dirrivitiave of Dirk. Sometimes a whales penis.
To mean stupid or obnoxious person 1967.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Keep a stiff upper lip

Say What?
Stay calm, resolute and non emotional.

When someone gets upset, his or her lips might tremble. If you keep a stiff upper lip, you are trying not to show you are upset. This expression dates back to the 1800s, but it is still used today. Similar to "keep your chin up" and "keep your pecker up".

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Famous Names: Lushington

Dr. Thomas Lushington

A heavy drinking Englishman in the late 1600's. So known for his heavy drinking a pub was named after him "City of Lushington" 200 years after he died. The patrons of the club were conscidered "lushes" or "lush"

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Famous Names: Cadillac

Atoine de la Mothe Cadillac

A french explorer, who happens to have founded

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Famous Names: Lynch

Captain William Lynch

A Farmer during the Revolutionary war organized groups of people later called "Lynch Mobs" of local townsfolks to provide justice to local British collaborators. Sometimes resulting in a hanging or "Lynching" a non trial form of justice.

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Quid pro quo

Say What?
Something given in return for a item of equivalent value - like tit for tat.

A Latin term meaning 'something for something' or 'this for that'. The idea is more commonly expressed in English as 'one good turn deserves another'. This has been in the language since at least 1654, as here in H. L'Estrange's, 'The Reign of King Charles':

"One good turn deserves another."

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People who live in glass houses should not throw stones

Say what?
Those who are vulnerable should not attack others.

The proverb has been traced back to Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Troilus and Criseyde' (1385). George Herbert wrote in 1651: 'Whose house is of glass, must not throw stones at another.' This saying is first cited in the United States in 'William & Mary College Quarterly' (1710). Twenty-six later Benjamin Franklin wrote, 'Don't throw stones at your neighbors', if your own windows are glass.' 'To live in a glass house' is used as a figure of speech referring to vulnerability." From "Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings" (1996) by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996).

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Achilles' heel

From Wikipedia
A person's weak spot


In the myths surrounding the Trojan War, Achilles died from a heel wound as the result of an arrow fired by Paris.

According to a myth arising later, his mother, Thetis, had dipped the infant Achilles in the river Styx, holding onto him by his heel, and he became invulnerable where the waters touched him -- that is, everywhere but the areas covered by her thumb and forefinger -- implying that only a heel wound could have been his downfall.

The use of "Achilles' heel" (or "Achilles heel") as an English expression for "area of weakness, vulnerable spot" dates only to 1855 (Merriam-Webster), or, in the form "heel of Achilles," 1810 (OED: Coleridge, "Ireland, that vulnerable heel of the British Achilles".)

The Achilles' heel as a singular weakness is a cliche in superhero comics.

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Trickery - double dealing. Sexual connotations


Nonsense terms that was just made up as having an attractive alliteration or rhyme, like 'the bee's knees', 'the mutt's nuts' etc. The words themselves have no inherent meaning, and it was probably a development of the similar term - 'hocus pocus'.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Down the tubes

Say What?

Down the drain, over, unrecoverable, gone.

The tubes are the pipes connected to a lavatory. This is derived from 'down the drain' and is the American equivalent of the British 'down the pan'.

Davy Jones Locker

Say What?

Bottom of the ocean. Going overboad.


Unknown... But this site seems to have an answer.

from Tobias Smollet's The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751): "This same Davy Jones, according to the mythology of sailors, is the fiend that presides over all the evil spirits of the deep...."

But could be..., from Yahoo

One legend suggests that a particularly fiendish pub owner named David Jones used to incapacitate hapless drinkers in his ale locker, and send them off aboard ships. Sounds like a handy way of disposing of your enemies.

Gad Zooks

Say What?
A general exclaimant

Blimey is a shortened form of gorblimey which is a garbled way of saying "God blind me". In full, streuth is "by God's truth" and it is a survivor of a large genre of God's [something]. Thus, gadzooks (or od's wucks) is literally "God's hooks", the hooks likely being a reference to the nails used to fasten Christ to the cross.

A Drop in the bucket

Say What?

A very small proportion of the whole.


From the Bible, Isaiah 40:15:

"Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing."

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Welcome to Say What?

Welcome to Say What? and exploration into the wonderful world of saying and word origins. Who hasn't thought "what does that mean?" or "where did that saying come from?" We hope to enlighten you.